I’ve spent years inside of high school buildings which are notorious for long hallways. Every hour or so, with the ring of a bell, hundreds or thousands of human beings move into these long hallways and move to their next class.
Some years ago, I noticed that I moved down the hallways like most everyone else did: looking down or looking above others. Once I noticed that about myself, I began watching the faces that passed me. I could see some of their feelings through the windows of their eyes: anxiety, fatigue, happiness, worry, boredom, curiosity, fear. So many human beings jammed into such small spaces, each moving as if they were alone. My guess is that most of us do actually move through crowds like that, feeling fairly alone. How do we learn to do that?
I started a little experiment–just for myself. I wondered one day what would happen if I smiled and greeted anyone who looked at me. So, that day, every time I went out to walk a hallway, I did. I don’t know what I thought would happen, but I was surprised. Frequently faces were startled at first. Startled because someone was smiling at them? After the immediate startle, most faces, the vast majority of faces, broke into a smile, too. That became such the common experience that what really stuck out were the few, the very few, who would look back at me and continue unmoved by my smile. The unappreciated smile returned with a frown, or an expression of anger or depression, left its mark on me – almost as if something had been thrown at me.
We can choose to affect the world around us in this simple way. A smile. A greeting. My experiment that day has continued for the last 12 years. It’s become my way of navigating long narrow hallways. In fact, when I run in my neighborhood, I wave – at everyone, even the delivery trucks. Here’s what I’ve learned: The smile changes me, first. And then, it has the potential to bring change to others.
Thank you for this great reminder of how important a simple smile can be.
This brought back so many memories! When I was in junior high, we were not allowed to talk in the hall. And, we were supposed to walk in single file. In retrospect, I think it’s because our school contained grades 5-8 and the younger kids were on a different schedule than the older kids. We went to lunch at different times. The younger kids stayed in the same classroom all day and still had recess. The older kids changed classrooms each hour. The administration wanted us to be quiet so we wouldn’t disturb the kids who were in class.
Anyway, the ONE time I had to go to the principal’s office in junior high school was because I was talking with my best friend while we were walking to lunch. We turned a corner and the principal was standing right there! Fortunately I was one of the “good” kids so I didn’t get into much trouble but I did get told that I had broken a rule and that she had expected more of me. She expected that I would model good behavior and set an example for others. I was mortified. Sadly, for the rest of my junior high years, I adhered to the eyes down, don’t smile behavior that was mandated. Not good for my social skills, but it did gain me the approval of the teachers and administration.
I believe that for many of us this behavior is NOT natural, but is something that was conditioned into us. Little children seem to look at everyone with great curiosity, and “state the obvious” in ways that would be so rude for adults to do! For example, in a recent episode of “Little Couple” a fairly young child noticed that he was taller than Bill Klein and stated that, followed by asking Bill how old he was!